The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Maori Girl. Noel Hilliard is known for short stories, mostly on Maori themes. The opening of this novel evokes with clarity the look, the sound, the atmosphere, of a Maori child's life on a farm somewhere in Taranaki. Haki Samuel had wrenched a farm out of the kahikateas at Mokamokai, and founded a family. There were nine children, two given away to relatives. Netta, the girl of the story, was born at the beginning of the depression.
Maori Girl is another item in our literature of protest; rightly, David Hall has drawn attention to its kinship with Children of the Poor. These Samuels are our new poor, partly because of the depression, partly because of their race. Hilliard gives a memorable, easy, natural picture of the family and community life at Mokamokai in part one, setting the background of training, character and experience against which the later inevitable disaster is to be acted. In part two, Netta, tired of cows, gumboots, and the beer-swilling local boys, sets off for the big city. She trails with increasing discouragement from lodging to lodging; she seeks friends and the warmth of company where it is offered her, not always desirably; she meets only those among the Pakeha who live in the good-time world of jobs easily taken, easily lost. Hotel work, restaurant work provide money which she cannot manage, but no emotional centre. When finally some stability in a page 111 relationship is offered by the casual Arthur, she makes a home with him in a slum and awaits the baby which is coming.
"Fourteen people lived in the house, including five married couples, each in a single room, and a year-old baby. They all shared one bathroom, one small washhouse, and one lavatory."
Arthur, equally insecure, finds to his astonishment that he is putting down roots:
"He nailed a box for the milk bottles to the crazy-fence at the front, and he put up a rough shelf to hold the knick-knacks ... on Friday nights they went shopping together, arms linked, Arthur carrying the string kits . . ."
When, in this newly found urge to settle, he protests to the authorities about housing conditions, Netta's boss, who is landlord as well, turns her out instantly; before this can be known to Arthur, he reacts in illogical fury to his chance discovery that the child is not his, rejecting Netta with a deadly insult:
" 'Black!—you're as black as the bloody ace of spades.' "
The rest of Netta's story can be imagined; Hilliard tells it with speed and enough restraint to make it really moving.
This is, of course, a "preaching" novel, but its thesis springs fairly naturally from its realistic detail, which is rendered with some skill. This new submerged tenth of our towns needs a new Sargeson to interpret for it. If Hilliard can develop his art, he should go far, for he has the knowledge, as well as a controlling moral intention. (See also chapter eight.)